Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

TEDx: Jeff Kripal on the Impossible Becoming Possible

Jeff Kripal is a Professor of Comparative Religion at Rice University. He's also the author of two absolutely fascinating recent books which touch on aspects of the paranormal, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. If those sound like topics you'd find interesting, then you'll probably enjoy this TEDx talk that Jeff gave in November 2012 on "impossible things":

There are complexities and wonderment in life we simply cannot explain. When we look to science and religion, we can't always find the answers. Have you ever experienced deja-vu, coincidences, or dreams that may have seemed real? Have you ever wondered what exactly qualifies as human consciousness? Reality vs. Abstract? So have we...join a discussion to explore these and more paradoxical ways of thinking.

I strongly recommend picking up Jeff's books, I found both super interesting and catalysts to deeper thinking on these topics.

Happy 42nd Birthday, Greg!

On behalf of everyone at the Grail, happy birthday Greg! Blowing out 42 candles on your birthday cake is an ancient method of achieving an altered state of consciousness, during which the meaning of life will be revealed to you. Have a good one mate, and I hope there are many more to come.

First Sight: A New Way of Understanding Psi

For some time I've had James Carpenter's First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life sitting on my reading list, but with multiple projects (and setbacks) happening I haven't yet had time to sit down with it properly. But I thought that I should at least mention it here, as I'm sure many Grailers would find it of interest. The book's PR promises no less than "a new model for understanding" anomalous abilities, such as those studied in parapsychology. Now there's not shortage of theorists out there in parapsychology, throwing out all sorts of ideas - but Carpenter is no crazy amateur. He's been involved in parapsychology research for many decades, and you only need to look at those who have commented on his book to know that he's got the attention of the field. Dean Radin labels First Sight as a "refreshingly novel approach to understanding psychic phenomena", Daryl Bem notes that the evidence Carpenter "marshals in defense of this thesis is persuasive and serves to unify many phenomena associated with psychic functioning", and Stanley Krippner says it is "a model of the mind that is both innovative and compelling".

I've embedded a video above of Carpenter describing the First Sight theory, but for those unable to view it, here's a short passage in which he outlines the theory using the analogy of lightning:

Consider physical lightning bolts. For thousands of years they were just about all that people knew about electricity. They were unpredictable, awesome, terrifying and beautiful. The ancients thought that when they erupted, the dormant sky had become suddenly and fiercely alive. Book Cover - First SightNow we understand that lightning is one expression of electricity, and electricity is actually everywhere. Electric charge is a basic constituent of every atom. It helps make up the stuff of our bodies, it connects each synaptic chain. It tells your heart when to beat. As we came to understand electricity we mastered it. Now you hold a domesticated lightning bolt in your hand when you use your cell phone. In a few moments you can use it to speak to someone in Beijing or Adelaide or Buenos Aires. The awesome anomaly is not anomalous at all and we have tamed it.

The lightning bolts that we call paranormal experiences are also surprising and beautiful and disturbing. They shake the ground of solid reality. They seem different and anomalous. According to First Sight theory, they are not really anomalous either.
This book is about a radically new way of thinking about these things. It presents a revolutionary understanding of how each of us fits within the world and how we are put together within ourselves. A lot of evidence suggests that the theory is true. In light of this, much of what we normally assume will need to be changed.

First Sight theory proposes that, like electricity, psychic experience is actually going on all the time. Also like electricity, it is almost always out of sight in its functioning. Occasionally, it will be expressed in obvious ways, like lightning bolts, but normally it is unconscious. What is it for? According to the theory, it is the leading edge of the unconscious processes that the mind uses to construct all its experience and all its behavior. Because it traffics with things that have not reached the physical senses, it is our first line of engagement with the world, our first outpost of information. This is why the theory reconstrues what has been called second sight and calls it First Sight.

You can grab First Sight from Amazon US or Amazon UK. More information about the book can also be found at the First Sight website.

Feeling the Future: Round Two

Crystal Ball

Two years ago we posted news of a study by Professor Daryl Bem which seemed to support the idea of 'presentiment', which went on to cause no end of controversy within scientific and skeptical circles (and continues to do so). And now here comes another one on the same topic, although not directly related to Bem: a broad review of experiments so far exploring the presentiment effect, titled "Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. The paper is fairly heavy on terminology and statistics, but here's the basic summary (though 'basic' doesn't do it justice, given the implications of a presentiment effect being proven):

It has been known for some time that arousing and neutral stimuli produce somewhat different post-stimulus physiological responses in humans. However, what is remarkable is that many of the studies examined here make the claim that, for instance, the same physiological measure that yields a differential post-stimulus response to two stimulus classes also yields a differential pre-stimulus response to those same stimulus classes, prior even to the random selection of the stimulus type by the computer. Authors of these studies often refer to the effect as presentiment (sensing an event before it occurs) or unexplained anticipatory activity; we favor the latter terminology as it describes the phenomenon without implying that the effect truly reflects a reversal of the usual forward causality.

Basically, data from experiments appears to show that the body begins reacting to a future event from 2 to 10 seconds *before the event happens*. Needless to say, this is not part of the canon of the current scientific paradigm...

The physiological responses mentioned above are recorded from various sources, including skin conductance, heart rate, blood volume, respiration, electroencephalographic (EEG) activity, pupil dilation, blink rate, and/or blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) responses.

The meta-analysis found a small effect size (though many scientific and medical breakthroughs have been smaller), with a high level of significance. The analysis also seemed to rule out the chance that the results were an artifact of poor experimental design, "as higher-quality experiments that addressed known methodological concerns (randomization and expectation bias analysis) produced a quantitatively if not significantly higher overall ES and level of significance than lower-quality studies."

The authors also analysed data from emotional physiology studies that were not investigating the presentiment effect, and found that this data also contained evidence of the phenomenon.

The paper addresses a number of possible 'mundane' explanations for the observed presentiment effect, but found no smoking gun. In the final summary...

...the results of this meta-analysis indicate a clear effect, but we are not at all clear about what explains it. We conclude that if this seemingly anomalous anticipatory activity is real, it should be possible to replicate it in multiple independent laboratories using agreed-upon protocols, dependent variables, and analysis methods. Once this occurs, the problem can be approached with greater confidence and rigor. The cause of this anticipatory activity, which undoubtedly lies within the realm of natural physical processes (as opposed to supernatural or paranormal ones), remains to be determined.

And by that last sentence, I think they mean "well most people would probably describe this as paranormal, but we know we'll lose all the skeptics and scientists if we do that so we'll explicitly disavow it"...

(hat tip to @DavidBMetcalfe)

The Science of Lucid Dreaming

The short video above provides a quick introduction the science and (some of the) techniques involved in learning how to lucid dream. For more detailed information, I highly recommend a book from Daily Grail Publishing, Lucid Dreaming: Accessing Your Inner Virtual Realities, by Paul and Charla Devereux (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). Paul and Charla provide a detailed breakdown (in an easily readable manner) of both the history of research into lucid dreaming - a fascinating topic on its own - and also the science and techniques you can use to learn how to do it yourself.

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What Hallucinations Reveal About Our Minds

In this fascinating TED-Talk, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks discusses Charles Bonnett syndrome, a strange condition where visually impaired people experience lucid hallucinations.

Our good friend Paul Devereux has written on this topic previously, in Darklore Volume 1 and Fortean Times, and you can find a version of his article at It's a personal story involving a friend of Paul's that suffered from Charles Bonnet syndrome, which got him thinking about the 'reality' of our perceptions:

The Charles Bonnet Syndrome is merely an observation, not an explanation, so what exactly causes these hallucinations? On that subject the medical literature becomes less helpful, and it is clear, even admitted, that no one really knows. I could buy the idea that patches of light in the central visual region could be related to pathological conditions in the macula, and could cause people and writing to apparently disappear intermittently, but faces at the window, and people dressed in various costumes walking toward churches or driving vehicles or holding street parties seem more of a push. This was especially the case for me in that I was also aware that people claiming to encounter spirits, whether psychic mediums or ordinary individuals in spontaneous cases, tend to report seeing them in their peripheral vision rather than directly, “head on”. I could not help but wonder with these macular degeneration visions whether we were dealing with hallucinations or spirits or some subtle level of perception between them both.

Although the actual mechanics are currently unknown, the basic official theory explaining the visions associated with visual impairment like macular degeneration is that the brain, on receiving incomplete visual data through the eyes, “fills in” the missing elements as best it can – a kind of “best fit” process. In fact, there is evidence that it is only the input of a constant visual stream through our eyes that prevents the brain making up its own imagery in any case. This has been demonstrated in sensory deprivation experiments in which subjects who are placed in total blackout conditions for long periods experience hallucinatory imagery to lighten their darkness. All of us experience this in another form and to a lesser degree when we dream.

If this explanation is true, then a whole host of other implications are raised. If animated figures in costumes, shades of the dead, processions leading to physically real churches, whole landscapes and entire, complex scenes can be rendered in intricate detail by the brain struggling to “fill in” gaps in sensory data, what then is “reality”? Could what we take to be concrete materiality be a kind of hallucination sustained by cultural conditioning, and are paranormal phenomena simply glitches in that illusion? Are the different, spirit-based worldviews held by tribal societies simply other forms of hallucination no less “real” than our own? Is the Hindu doctrine of apparent reality being but the “Veil of Maya”, of illusion, correct?

Whatever the answers are to such questions, one thing is certain – we do not see with our eyes alone.

An interesting point made by Oliver Sacks is that around 10% of visually impaired people have these hallucinations, but only about 1% report it to their doctor, as they fear being labeled "crazy". It's a similar predicament to people who have near-death experiences and other seemingly paranormal interactions, and suggests that there is somewhat of a deleterious effect to the growing rationalism of the modern world. In fact, we are strange creatures who regularly see and experience strange things - we shouldn't "believe" them as a matter of fact, but we should at least acknowledge more often that they are a built-in part of our perceptual range.

Dr. Sacks' latest book, Hallucinations, which obviously touches on this topic, will be released later this year and can be pre-ordered via the given link.

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Not Feeling the Future: New Bem Replication Fails to Find Evidence of Psi

Crystal Ball

Another possible hit this week for Professor Daryl Bem's controversial "Feeling the Future" experiments, which found positive evidence for precognition, with the publication of a large-scale replication study which found no psi effect. The full paper, "Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi", is freely available for download, and I recommend downloading it and having a good read. No doubt many will suffer (as I did) through the more technical descriptions of statistical analysis, but amongst that there is fascinating, respectful discussion of the Bem experiments and this latest replication attempt. In addition to the experiment results, the paper also features a meta-analysis of all replications attempted so far, which found again no significant evidence for precognition effects.

For those that can't make it all the way through the paper, skeptic Steven Novella already has a large write-up of the new paper at Neurologica, in which he addresses many of the key points, as well as giving a broad overview of the entire Bem controversy.

Bem’s studies have not fared well in replication. Earlier this year Ritchie, Wiseman, and French published three independent replications of Bem’s 9th study, all negative. Of further interest is that the journal that originally published Bem’s article had declined to publish Ritchie et al’s paper claiming that they don’t publish replications. This decision (and editorial policy) was widely criticizes, as it reflects an undervaluing of replications.

It’s good to see that the journal has relented and agreed to publish a replication. Galak, LeBoeuf, Nelson, and Simmons should be commended, not only on their rigorous replication but their excellent article, which hits all the key points of this entire episode.

The researchers replicated experiments 8 and 9 of Bem (they chose these protocols because they were the most objective). They conducted 7 precise replications involving a total of 3,289 subjects (Bem’s studies involved 950 subjects). Six of the seven studies, when analyzed independently, were negative, while the last was slightly statistically significant. However, when the data are taken together, they are dead negative. The authors concluded that their experiments found no evidence for psi.

I leave it to more qualified minds than mine to authoritatively assess the merits of the paper. For what it's worth, however, here's my thoughts (caveats abounding):

I would imagine Bem would criticize this new replication on a key point, one which Novella glosses over in his assessment (in calling it a "rigorous" and "precise" replication) - that four of the seven experiments were done online, not in the lab. Additionally, one of the online experiments (#7) had roughly 2400 respondents, so across all 7 tests the amount of 'lab' results is only about 12%. This online aspect brings in a number of points of failure, from inattentiveness and distraction, right through to unintentional (by knowing about and thus being prepared for the 'surprise' test at the end) or intentional sabotage - it's worth noting that the availability of the online test was passed around on skeptical forums such as the JREF and Rational Skepticism. Bem himself has criticized a previous paper from Galak et al. on this very point, saying when you do the test online, "you lose total control over it". Interestingly, two of the three lab-based experiments done by the researchers had significantly lower p-values (p=0.04 and p=0.10) than the other tests.

Additionally, the researchers acknowledge explicitly that after reading Bem's replication notes, they noticed that "there were at least three differences between our experiments (which followed the procedure described in Bem’s published paper) and the full procedure actually employed by Bem." This included using a different word set to Bem for some tests. Steven Novella notes in his blog summary the importance of precise replications, saying that "a precise replication should have no degrees of freedom." I find it hard to imagine how he reconciles this view with his support of the paper (describing it multiple times as a "precise" replication), and therefore that it "provides further evidence against psi as a real phenomenon, and specifically against the claims of Daryl Bem".

Having said that, the paper itself does an admirable job of explaining these limitations/problems, and providing alternate analysis excluding some of these factors which appears to still show support for their conclusions. However, I had the distinct feeling that some of those exclusions were rather arbitrary (for instance, how to exclude possible sabotage), and in the end I'm not sure that they overcome the larger problem of (a) the massive online component and (b) the lack of precise replication, in terms of making this latest study acceptable as a true replication of Bem's experiments. Nevertheless, fascinating reading and well worth your time.

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Why Being Called a 'Bird Brain' Might Now Be a Compliment

We posted last week about the growing evidence for animal consciousness in various species. Here's another to perhaps add to the list - a bird that appears to be using bait to catch a fish.

Given the size of the piece of bread it's using, it obviously prefers fish to grain. The odd bit is that it seems to be happy letting the fish eat the bread until the very last piece...surely it's not 'fattening up' its prey before eating?

(via @BryanAppleyard)

This Man Was a Psychic Spy for the U.S. Government

In the 1970s, Stanford Research Institute developed a protocol that they hoped would allow people to access their inner psychic talents, in order to view distant targets (in both time and space) without using their regular five senses. Though such talents have been reported throughout history, and labeled as "traveling clairvoyance", the SRI researchers gave their distinct protocol its own specific name: remote viewing.

The C.I.A. became interested in SRI's remote viewing research, not least due to concerns that the Soviets already had such a capability, and funded a $50,000 study for further experimentation and refinement of the protocol. And in the late 1970s, the U.S. Army joined the party by commissioning its own remote viewing project. During the 1980s the army continued with remote viewing under a variety of project names, which are often grouped together under the most well-known of them, Project Star Gate.

The first man recruited into the Army's remote viewing program was Joseph McMoneagle, and even today he's still often referred to simply as "Remote Viewer No. 1". Drafted into the first 'psychic intelligence' unit, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, McMoneagle noted that his decision to join the project, after twenty years as an Intelligence NCO, came down simply to concerns about the safety of his country:

When I was first exposed to the possibility of remote viewing as an intelligence threat, I took it very seriously because the evidence already extant was significantly compelling to demand attention.

And decades later, after continuous study and practice of remote viewing, McMoneagle says he's "more convinced than ever that there is something going on that we should be very concerned about...the greatest threat to my nation and possibly the single greatest discovery in our species' history...remote viewing, when used appropriately, has a capacity for extensively destructive and creative contributions in our development."

In the one hour video interview* above, McMoneagle explains remote viewing, and his own involvement over the past 30 odd years. You can also read his own account of the history of 'Project Star Gate' in his book The Stargate Chronicles: Memoirs of a Psychic Spy (Amazon US and UK).

And if you want to train up as a psychic spy yourself, you can download the original co-ordinate remote viewing (CRV) manual developed by SRI and the U.S. Army (though the primary author appears to be artist and original remote viewer Ingo Swann). I only pass on the link because I have encased my office within a Faraday cage...

* Beware the god-awful chime at the beginning of the video, it just about woke up my whole house.

Mitch Hedberg on the Need for Day-Dreaming

Mitch Hedberg was one of my favourite comedians - like Steven Wright, his off-center takes on the seemingly drab minutia of everyday life were always a good tonic for those times when reality and daily routines were closing in (not to mention, the pure benefits of laughing out loud). Sadly, Hedberg died in 2005, aged just 37.

So I was fascinated by the short documentary posted above, in which his wife Lynn Shawcroft discusses Hedberg's writing process. The following excerpt in particular resonated with me, as I've been contemplating a lot lately how much my life is dominated by 'inputs' - the constant stream of of phone, internet and TV content - and whether that type of lifestyle has had a deleterious effect on my own ability to enjoy the act of creation:

One thing I learned from Mitch about writing, and which probably attracted me to him, was he was a huge proponent of day-dreaming. I think he considered hanging out and thinking an extremely valuable way to spend your time. Like just hanging out and thinking, or allowing your thoughts to drift. Setting up your life so that you can have that time to use your imagination.

It's a wonderfully personal and touching look at Hedberg from the point of view of his long-time partner, well worth watching.

(via @MattStaggs and Splitsider)